With his twin brother Aaron, the guitarist Bryce Dessner is at the heart of the band The National. He is also a composer whose resume includes a double concerto for electric guitars and orchestra, and a set of works for the indie-chamber music ensemble called Clogs. Given his wide-ranging work and the adventurous, roving ear of the Kronos Quartet’s founding violinist, David Harrington, the collaboration documented here was almost inevitable. Aheym consists of four works, three of which were written specifically for Kronos and one which was commissioned by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus but written to include the quartet as well.
The title track was the first piece Dessner wrote for Kronos. The word “Aheym” is Yiddish for “homeward,” a reference to the piece’s Brooklyn roots. This is a barnburner of a piece — Kronos has used it in the last few years as a concert opener and as a closer; with its headlong rush of jagged, spiky rhythms, it almost feels wrong to listen to it while sitting down.
And while the piece “Aheym” features just the four members of Kronos, Dessner’s Brooklyn community — one where the borders between indie rock and contemporary classical music are particularly porous — is very much in evidence elsewhere on the record. Sufjan Stevens adds his ethereal vocals to the end of “Tenebre,” a long, haunting meditation of light and sound that ends up celebrating darkness and the sparest textures on the record. And what amounts to a full band accompanies the youth chorus and the string quartet on “Tour Eiffel.” This might be the most immediately engaging piece on the record; its setting of a Chilean poem is both lyrical and rhythmically intriguing, and the added sparkle of guitar, piano and vibraphone give the work an almost orchestral sound.
The fourth composition, “Little Blue Something,” has echoes of early music — not any particular piece or composer or period, but the sound of the viola da gamba. The work was inspired by the Czech musicians Irena and Vojtech Havel, who have played their own music on violas da gamba since the 1980s. You won’t find their privately-released cassette, “Little Blue Nothing,” on the web as of this writing, but at least we have this gently dramatic work it inspired.